DC and Marvel have complained for years about how difficult it is to continue surprising readers when everyone has access to solicitation information two months before a story comes out. To combat that, they’ve offered a steady increase in the number of redacted solicits and “classified” covers; a solution that’s not just unhelpful to retailers trying to decide how many comic to order, but creates a situation in which retailers have to rely on publishers saying, “We can’t tell you anything about it, but trust us, you’re going to want lots of this one.” If I’m a retailer, that sounds like an untenable situation to be in. But what if it’s a whole lot of noise about something that doesn’t have to be a problem?
Last month, a study revealed that – contrary to conventional wisdom – spoilers can actually increase enjoyment of a story. According to UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, “subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories” and knowing the ending ahead of time “not only didn't hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.” Click the link for a fuller run-down of how the study was conducted, but the research is relatively unimportant. It just scientifically demonstrates something everyone already knew was true.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve come out of a movie that I enjoyed for its thrilling pace, but realized how many plot holes there were as soon as I started discussing it with my friends. Or the number of comics I’ve read where I was caught up in the “event” only to be disappointed by the end that there was no real story there. In the words of Christenfeld and Leavitt, “plot is overrated.”
It’s not unimportant, but it’s only one part of great writing, which includes many, many more things like character and theme and voice. That sounds like only three things until you realize that each of those breaks down further too. “Character,” for example, isn’t just having a good character, but includes having something to say about that character. I’m ashamed at how many comics I’ve bought for the appearance of a character I love only to find out that she was completely disposable to the story. Great writing needs all of its elements, but Marvel and DC readers have been trained to focus almost exclusively on plot and character-appearances. Mostly plot. And that’s done a couple of things to the fandom, one negative and one potentially positive.
The negative thing is that it’s put a huge emphasis on spoilers. We want the story before the story comes out. You can’t read an interview with a DC or Marvel writer without the interviewer trying to coax details of future stories. I’m not judging here; I’m as guilty of doing it as an interviewer as I am of wanting it as a reader, so I understand that there’s a good reason for why it happens. I’m just pointing out that it does happen and that it’s a problem. It’s frustrating to the writers and ultimately unsatisfying to readers.
The potentially positive aspect is that knowing the plot ahead of time drives readers’ attention to the writing itself. This is the point of Christenfeld and Leavitt’s survey. The AV Club’s Noel Murray wrote an article a couple of months ago about how spoiling HBO’s Game of Thrones for himself enabled him to enjoy the intrigue, character interactions, and themes because he wasn’t busy trying to decipher clues and unravel complicated connections. I’d argue that this is why we watch or read good stories a second time. The first time through is to decipher the plot; the next one is to appreciate the art. I prefer that to reading a Wikipedia summary, but Murray’s way is valid too. So is reading spoilers in solicits and interviews.
But knowing the plot ahead of time is a double-edged sword. It allows the reader to better appreciate the craft of a story the first time through, but what if the craft isn’t very good? That’s the negative side of the sword. Most mainstream superhero comics are so plot-focused that they don’t think they have to be very good as long as the plot is exciting. Or sometimes not even exciting so long as it’s “important.” The positive side of knowing the plot ahead of time is that readers can see bad writing for what it is. If I was a conspiracy-theorist I’d suggest that this is why DC and Marvel are so protective of their upcoming stories, but I don’t believe it’s that Machiavellian.
I think the need to churn out comics on a regular schedule has forced them into plot-driven stories without a lot of time for great writing. Certainly there are exceptions and a big part of what excites me about DC’s New 52, for example, is the amount of focus they’ve been giving in interviews to a renewed interest in craft. But when you look at the wide landscape of Big Two superhero comics over the last several years and the amount of complaining that readers do about the most plot-driven of them, the events, it’s clear that there’s something to this. The question is: do writers and readers continue to let plots and surprises control storytelling or do we demand great writing?